It wouldn’t be Scotland if they didn’t do it the hard way. A Martin Skrtel own goal has kept the Tartan Army’s hopes of a trip to next years World Cup alive after a nervous match at Hampden Park.
The Scots were in their away colours if pink with black shorts and socks – a combination which has seen Gordon Strachan’s men lose 3-0 to both England and Slovakia in this qualifying campaign so far.
With Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong injured, Darren Fletcher returned to captain his country while Barry Bannan was promoted to the starting 11. James McArthur had to settle for a place on the bench with James Morrison starting in midfield against the second placed Slovaks.
The game had very little goalmouth action early on with Christophe Berra coming the closest inside the opening 20 minutes, seeing his header saved by Dubravka.
Kieran Tierney had earlier appealed for a Scotland penalty but it was a decision at the other end which changed the match.
Robert Mak – who scored two goals against Scotland a year ago – was sent off for a second bookable offence after only 23 minutes. The winger had taken out James Forrest early on and received a caution before Serbian referee Milorad Mazic sent off the influential Slovak for an apparent dive. The on-loan PAOK star had managed to put Tierney under pressure and as goalkeeper Craig Gordon rushed out to gather the loose ball, the 26-year-old hit the deck but with the Celtic keeper having not touched the Slovakian player, it seems as if the correct decision had been reached.
After this, however, the visitors began to create a few openings with Lobotka and Hamsik looking the most likely to foil any dreams Scotland had of reaching next summers Tournament.
Griffiths forced another good save from the away goalie as the opening 45 came to a close.
With both defences holding firm, the match went into the break all square as the Hampden crowd stemmed to get a little restless.
Griffiths had an early header saved comfortably before his Hoops team-mate James Forrest slashed a shot wide from 20 yards.
Stanislav Lobotka and Jan Gregus forced Gordon into vital stops as the 10-men fought tooth and nail to get the all important first goal in this tense contest.
With the hosts struggling to control the match and with the visitors gaining in confidence as well ad territory, Chris Martin was brought on with half an hour to play as Strachan moved to Plan B.
Griffiths forced a great save from Dubravka, who was having an outstanding game between the posts and was denying Scotland a vital 3 points in this Group F encounter.
Strachan’s men couldn’t come much closer than when Martin, from just outside the box, and then Griffiths – from a free-kick + both smashing the crossbar with time running out.
Darren Fletcher picked up an injury to his ear and was replaced by James McArthur while Ikechi Anya was introduced at right-back in place of Kieran Tierney as Strachan rolled the dice for one last time.
James Morrison had a close-range effort saved as the Scots looked dead and buried against their Slovakian opponents… Until the 89th minute!
Griffiths done well to find Anya down the right and as the substitute bombed into the area his drilled ball in was slotted home by former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel – who was forced into the mistake by the tireless work done by Chris Martin who had put the experienced defender under enough pressure to make him flick the ball past his helpless goalkeeper.
Scotland saw the match out comfortably in such a highly pressurised final few minutes. Slovakia knew a goal, an equaliser, would distinguish any hopes the Tartan Army have of reaching Russia.
Dubravka was in fine form and it was going to take something special or a mistake to beat him and it certainly was with the last-minute own goal.
Strachan’s men still have their destiny in their own hands; a win against Slovenia would guarantee the Scots a place in the play-offs for next summers World Cup.
I am sure the Tartan Army are hoping for an away day to remember…. But maybe not leaving the winner as late, this time around!
FULL TIME; Scotland 1-0 Slovakia